BBC Symphony Orchestra Concert – 12th May

Fanfare for Stokowski on Motifs from “Die Gurrelieder”
Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Piano Concerto in G major
Adagio for strings
Pictures at an Exhibition

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 12 May, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Leopold Stokowski only conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra on eight occasions, but someone obviously thought that this was a good enough reason to hang a concert around his name. The large and enthusiastic audience evidently agreed. Although the concert will not go down as one of the most musically profound and subtle given by this orchestra, there is no denying that the whole event was spectacular.

Unsurprisingly, the programme centred on Stokowski’s idiosyncratic transcriptions and arrangements. As Sir Andrew Davis acknowledged, Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions are just about as far away from being politically-correct and authentic as could be – over-the-top scoring, luscious string sounds, rattling percussion and grand-organ topping off the (in)famous Toccata & Fugue to great effect. Extravagant it may be, but certainly nothing less than brilliantly orchestrated and thought-out – even down to the lower strings carrying on the sound of the Toccata after the Fugue’s beginning, thus suggesting organ reverberation in a cathedral.

An even greater oddity, Schoenberg’s two-minute Fanfare, set the concert off to a rousing start – the orchestra and its conductor had a ball! The connections between Ravel and Barber with Stokowski are a little more, well, tenuous – Stokowski concurrently gave the US premiere of the Ravel and included the Barber in his first RFH concert in 1951.

I have never been over-fond of Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s playing, finding it flashy, lacking in variety of colour and short on poetry. On this occasion (thankfully spared his bright red socks!) I found less to disturb me – however, the extraordinarily beautiful slow movement was heavy-handed and rather too quick to provide sufficient contrast with the outer ones. Imogen Smith’s lovingly phrased cor anglais solo provided some respite in an otherwise frantic performance.

Compared to the rest of the programme, Barber’s Adagio came as welcome serenity despite a curiously anonymous reading. Anonymous is not a label easily applied to Stokowski’sorchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. Have there beenmore transcriptions of any other work? Henry Wood, Elgar Howarth, Leo Funtek, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lucien Caillet, among fifty in total, have made their attempts – not forgetting Ravel, of course, who provided the most enduring, if not strictly Russian-sounding, version. Part of the fun in this performance (which was outstanding) was playing ’spot the difference’ with the very familiar Ravel – and there are some striking ones.

Stokowski spoke of Ravel’s orchestration being too Gallic and set upon concentrating on the Russian/Slavic elements. Gone are the refined, cultured, dapper corners of Ravel, replaced by much tougher, sometimes cinematic, effects. One can question Stokowski’s taste at times, but it’s the perfect piece to raise an audience to its feet – no doubt of more concern to Stokowski, who went so far as to omit two movements (’Tuileries’ and’Limoges’) because they didn’t sound like Mussorgsky; I wonder what the composer would have said to that!

The first striking difference is in the Promenade – not Ravel’s casual stroll-around but full-bodied strings the first time then eerietremolando strings. Returning in later movements, this effect is overused. ’The Gnome’ is far more grotesque – contra bassoon and other low woodwind – whilst ’The Old Castle’ features a cor anglais rather than Ravel’s alto saxophone. Most striking of all is ’The Polish Ox Wagon’ (solo tuba and eight unison horns!) and the virtuosic ’Baba Yaga’ summoning the witch that lives on the bones of lost children with frightening reality – far more than Ravel in fact. ’The Great Gate of Kiev’, with tolling bells, multiple brass and organ is guaranteed to bring the house down – which it did.

Garish? Yes. Certainly eccentric – but what panache! Sir AndrewDavis, obviously happy to back at the helm of his old orchestra, had the measure of the whole thing; the expression on the players’ faces illustrated they were having a good time. For an encore, Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Nun komm der Heiden Heiland closed the evening peacefully.

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